Family reunion travels in harmony

Canadian folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle don't take their striking harmonies and warm acoustic songs out on the road all that often, but their Tuesday, May 4, show at Sapphire will be unique for other reasons as well. The premise of their recent album, "The McGarrigle Hour," and the tour is that this is an old-fashioned variety show, traipsing from town to town and bringing audiences more musical bang for the buck. In that spirit, some of the people who joined the sisters on the album might be showing up at different venues along the way.

The McGarrigles carry with them a sense of home. "The McGarrigle Hour" features their musical extended family, which includes their sister Jane; Kate's kids, Rufus and Martha Wainwright; and Kate's former husband, Loudon Wainwright III. Various longtime associates join in the process, and some of them even sing songs on their own, sans Kate and Anna.

You might have heard the sisters' songs without realizing it. In the early 1970s Kate wrote "Work Song," a tune that Maria Muldaur covered on her debut disc. Anna penned "Heart Like a Wheel," the ballad that served as the title track for a Linda Ronstadt album. Together, the sisters then recorded their 1976 eponymous debut, which was named Rock Record of the Year by Melody Maker magazine.

Since that time the duo has written quite a few gems, raised families and crafted albums that brought genius to old-fashioned parlor singing. The same folks keep turning up on McGarrigle releases and, perhaps, on this tour. Names like Chaim Tannenbaum, Dane Lanken and Joel Zifkin show up on album after album, creating a homey familiarity about the various projects that comforts while assuring a consistently brilliant outcome.

"The McGarrigle Hour" promises to be the basis for a subtle jewel of a show. The CD's material ranges over centuries, touching on tunes by Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, with side trips to the world of Cajun music's D.L. Menard and traditional folk anthems like "Green Green Rocky Road" and "Baltimore Fire." This is one of the few McGarrigle albums to give short shrift to their own songwriting, but they still reprise a couple Kate classics -- "NaCl (Sodium Chloride)" and "Talk to Me of Mendocino" -- even as they grant space to the many talented songwriters within their circle of acquaintances.

The McGarrigles and their kin take you back to the days when families would commune as a unit, singing for the sheer joy of hearing each other's voice.

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